The Senate voted Thursday to defeat two rival plans to cut federal spending through the end of the year, reflecting deep divisions over the best course to tame the country's spiraling debt.
The impasse means that lawmakers will continue negotiations ahead of a March 18 deadline. That's when the current short-term spending measure expires and the government could shutdown without a new agreement.
The first bill, approved by House Republicans last month, was rejected in the Senate by a vote of 44 to 56. All 53 Democrats and three Republicans voted against it. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) said the cuts in the GOP bill did not go far enough.
Then the Democratic alternative failed 42 to 58. All 46 Republicans voted no, along with 11 Democrats and one independent.
The GOP bill would have sliced $61 billion from the current budget through cuts to programs dear to Democrats' hearts, like implementation of health care reform, Pell grants, early learning programs, nutrition for women and children, and funding for Planned Parenthood.
The Democratic measure would have trimmed $6.5 billion this year by eliminating earmarks and zeroing out funds for several highway projects and programs that President Obama has agreed to end.
The three-hour debate leading up to the votes became heated at times, with Republicans accusing Democrats of ignoring the debt problem, and Democrats warning that the GOP plan would harm women, children, homeless veterans, the sick, the poor and the elderly.
"If this were a plan to get us to a balanced budget, I would support it, but it's not," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "It's just a plan that compromises our national security without doing much else. When a real plan is presented, I'll vote for it. Until then, I'm voting no."
But Republican senators argued that no matter what had led up to this moment, the country is burning cash at a rate that will cripple the nation and its ability to prosper in the future.
"For goodness sakes, we've got to stop spending money we don't have on things we don't absolutely need," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a longtime budget hawk.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized GOP efforts to cut non-defense discretionary spending alone. He said reductions to all programs, as well as "revenue raisers," or tax hikes, must be discussed during the next round of budget negotiations.
"This is a Trojan horse spending proposal and we should not be fooled by it," he said. "These cuts will harm our ability to prepare for the future because they gut the very priorities we need to be investing in to help our economy grow -- education, energy investment, technology and infrastructure."
Other Democrats wondered why Republicans have become so concerned about the budget under President Obama, but made no attempt to deal with deficits that George W. Bush presided over as president.
"We borrowed the money for [the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] -- one that went way beyond what it was ever supposed to be and the other we should not have been in in the first place," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "We also cut taxes for oil companies and rich people and everyone else."
For their part, Republicans said the Democratic proposal did not go nearly far enough. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) called the plan to cut $6.5 billion at a time when the deficit is growing by $4 billion per day "pathetic and entirely inadequate."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) warned that current spending levels had put the United States on a path toward European-style socialism.
"Are we going to be a country with a constitutionally limited government that limits the burden of taxation on individuals and families and businesses, or are we going to become Europe?" Hatch asked.
Several senators voted against both proposals, criticizing both parties for failing to put a serious and fair budget proposal forward for senators to consider.
"In my view, neither is serious," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D. Neb.). "These bills are loaded down with tricks, treats, gimmicks, and games."
With the two votes completed, senators said they are ready to go back to the negotiating table, a process that began last week with a meeting presided over by Vice President Joe Biden, but complicated by his current trip overseas.
Funding for the government will expire at midnight on March 18 under a short-term measure called a continuing resolution. On Tuesday, House GOP whip Kevin McCarthy said Republicans have little hope that a seven-month budget agreement will be reached before then, so are prepared to negotiate another continuing resolution to keep the government operating while the talks continue.
With a lengthy negotiating process ahead, Coburn warned Wednesday that time is running out for Washington to solve the problem.
"We can no longer kick the can down the road without spilling the soup all over our kids. The time for action is now," he said.